Genuineness vs. Plasticism in Flight Attendant Interactions with Customers

Tyler Cowen presents a reader question about flight attendant ‘fake pleasant speech’ — which questioner Robert refers to as “robotic beauty queen.”

Tyler believes that the facade is important to maintain because a more relaxed, casual approach would belie true feelings of contempt for passengers amongst half of flight attendants.

Certainly this is a common stereotype, the Wikipedia entry on flight attendants even references the old Saturday Night Live skit with David Spade and Helen Hunt, “Total Bastard Airlines,” where the flight attendants bid passengers adieu with a sarcasm-laden “Buh Bye.” (Here is the skit on Russian RuTube, the stereotype resonates with pilots as well, the old skit gets relatively recent reference at the Professional Pilots Rumor Network bulletin board forum.)

I believe that on the whole though flight attendant interaction with customers is driven more by how flight attendants feel about their company, where they are in their trip (short overnight layovers at crummy airport hotels can ruin anyone’s day!), and the fact that the interactions are repeated on a very large scale which dehumanizes the effort to some degree. Plus I get a dig in at unions for good measure, but I think union work rules are only a minor contributor (as non-union Delta has, in my experience, only moderately more personal flight attendants than say American.)

Now, I’ve experienced flight attendants who are contemptuous of their customers. While I’ve also had good crews with United Airlines, it’s not at all a part of the airline culture, this is the airline whose official announcement declares that flight attendants are there primarly for your safety.

Of course, United is also the airline that introduced flight attendants in the first place. And it was one of the leaders in unionization as well, former airline President Pat Patterson pioneered turning employee scheduling over to the unions, believing that they were closer to the needs of their members than the company was. And in the heavily unionized sector, there’s little relationship between customer service and pay or advancement. There are modest efforts, like giving most frequent customers certificates that they can offer to employees who go above and beyond (and those certificates then in turn serve as raffle tickets for modest drawings), those efforts are very much at the margins.

Though even at a United, the differences in customer service — aside from the occasional flight attendant who simply by force of personality exudes an outward love for customers and their job, by no fault of the company’s or its work rules — can be seen on a route-by-route basis. United’s flight attendants are often the most indifferent in premium cabins (where there are fewer passengers to serve) on the most interesting international routes. That’s because the most jaded tend to be the most senior, and flight attendants ‘bid’ or pick their routes based on seniority. And they also bid their work position on the plane in a similar fashion. So you get the ironic outcome of serving your highest paying customers with the highest seniority crew members who often want to offer superior service the least. (Customers have given senior flight attendants serving United’s transpacific routes the moniker “prison matron.”)

On the whole I’ve had more enthusiastic service from flight attendants with Delta, Alaska, and Continental. Delta, whose flight attendants are non-union, will vote later this month on whether to unionize as their pre-merger Northwest flight attendants had been.

Still, the differences have been marginal, and Delta’s operations have been relatively similar in terms of incentives. The airline has taken more cultural approaches to improve flight attendant demeanor, such as the introduction of a glamorous ‘red dress.’ (Unions have complained that the sexy optional red dress isn’t offered in plus-sizes, and pilots evaluate female Delta flight attendant figures based on whether or no they are “RDQ” or ‘Red Dress Qualified’).) The archetype here is the flight attendant from the airline’s safety video, Deltalina.

But as to why flight attendant speech seems somewhat unnatural, I suspect that it’s as much a function of giving the same talk several times a day, every working day, for years. And seeing hundreds of passengers on each and every flight. So that each interaction seems, to many, less than real and more rehearsed. Whether or not they like people, customers, or more likely their attitudes are driven by feelings about their employer or whether or not they came off a tough trip with little sleep at a dingy airport hotel.

And even there the biggest differences are cultural. As mentioned in the comments to Tyler’s post, flight attendants on Singapore Arlines come across quite differently:

Singapore Airlines has staff who very much represent the country’s approach to customer service – polite, yet firm. Some basic chit-chat but clearly they are there to ensure that everyone is safe and that the food is served. I don’t think anyone would accuse them of being robotic or fake.

In fact, Singapore flight attendants are often referred to as ‘robotic’ in style .. but in a completely different way. They are practiced and purposeful and offer very specific, high levels of polite service virtually every time. And some customers find such interactions awkward (or ‘robotic’).

Southwest, and to some extent Jetblue, have achieved more down-to-earth ‘folksy’ cultures where interactios with airline staff may seem more real. So has Alaska Airlines. Asian carriers (especially Singapore, Cathay Pacific, All Nippon, and Asiana in my experience) offer a practiced, robotic service at the high-end. While American and some European carriers offer it at the low-end. With some variation, less formal cultures may seem to offer more genuine interactions, whether those interactions are positive or negative, here I have in mind Australian’s Qantas in particular.

Personally I’ll take the pracitced, routinized, robotic service from Singapore over the indifferent and robotic service I’ve gotten from many crews of US-based carriers over the years.

And I’m not sure that as a customer I’m looking for genuine, ‘real’ interaction with flight attendants anyway. We’re stuck in a metal tube for a fixed number of hours, put together with each other not by choice but by shared purpose of reaching a destination at a fixed period of time, and except for an airline’s most frequent customers and flight attendants given to flying the same routes, are unlikely ever to cross paths again. Why make the interpersonal investment? Why open up and be genuine?

I’d love to hear what flight attendants the Flying Pinto, Up, Up, and a Gay, or The Friendly Skies think about genuineness vs. platicism in customer interactions.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Indifferent. Oh, come on.

    Many FAs (my experience is with United) are openly contemptuous of customers, not indifferent. Just being civil and not rude would be a step in the right direction. They seem to take out their anger at the company on customers.

    Similar behavior in other businesses would get one immediately terminated.

  2. I fly Delta a ton. I must say that the ex-NWA and most Delta FA are just tops. Most are kind, smile, helpfully and will show great courtesy and banter if you want that.

    Having said that, the COMAIR ASA and other regional jet FA’s are just the worst. I know they start early and work many many hops in hot or cold planes all day long but if you do not like the job find another job!

  3. All it would take is ONE US airline to start focusing on customer service… Then many others would have to follow or they’d lose market share! It truly SHOCKS me that none of the legacy carriers in USA have chosen to focus on customer service as a competitive advantage!

  4. I wish u.s. Carriers would adopt the customer service of kuhlulu airways in south Africa. They’re at diffusing tension and maintaining calm.

  5. As a United frequent flier, I have never experienced indifferent or even contemptuous FAs. I do believe that human interactions, even on customer service level, are simply a tit-for-tat game. Of course, every rule has its exceptions, but in my personal experience being pleasant to your FA never goes unnoticed.

  6. Hmmm…Tsvet NEVER experienced even the indifferent on United? (actually indifferent is ok by me).

    One reason I suspect the FA frustration is with the company is because contemptuousness seems to be toward everyone; which strangely enough is good news since it would be worse directed at only those disliked.

    Being a pleasant customer still the way to go.

  7. I’d like to point out that AS and WN FAs are unionized. So, dig at union members… really not warranted. I think it’s actually more likely that the more bitter and jaded employees come from organizations where management and workforce are set against each other, which is NOT well correlated with unionization, but IS correlated with things like bankruptcy allowing companies to shaft employee pensions while senior management still rakes in multizillion dollar bonuses. I don’t think it’s fair to take out workplace frustrations on customers, mind you… but it’s hard to foster a “we’re all in this together” attitude in the workplace if, well, you’re not all in this together.

    Oh, and while I’m at it: I’ll be asking for my royalties on the phrase “US Airways, the official airline consolidator of Star Alliance premium cabins”. 🙂

  8. I do agree that Delta FAs are better than most of the other airlines in the US and Canada. The seniority rules don’t seem to be “in effect” for the main airlines in Europe and Asia, because I see plenty of young, enthusiastic FAs who seem to genuinely like their job and enjoy serving you. I’ve had great service in the biz class cabin on Air France, Lufthansa, Singapore, Asiana, and Thai.

    United FAs are definitely one of the worst…if I have a choice of flying them or Lufthansa on a route, all things being equal, I will choose LH every time.

  9. I don’t really care if they’re fake nice, or just nice. I’m just looking for a drink, snack, maybe some food and maybe assistance with an isolated issue or help during an incident. It’s a relationship for a few hours, not a lifetime.

    Of course I like someone who is friendly and appears to like their job, it does make the experience better. But in the end as long as they’re doing their job without being rude I’m ok with that.

    But, if the FA does a really good job – they seem to like their job, have a smile on their face and interact in a friendly way, I’m likely to let the company know.

  10. Gary, in the final paragraphs of your post you come close to my own reasons for adopting a somewhat distant, artificial style of friendliness on board. I was a flight attendant as a young woman, flying mainly long haul international for PanAm. Of the pax on board each flight, there is almost always one guy who interprets warm, friendly FA service as a deep personal interest in getting to know him better. Within a few months, I adopted a more cool, distant style of interacting with males between the ages of say, 18-60.

  11. Far too many UA flight attendants in premium cabins on international routes warrant Pam Ann’s CSD (C you next Tuesday Standing by the Door) moniker. Where do they come up with these battle axes?

  12. curious that you complain about pay, and encourage airlines to cut pay and wages and yet then complain about service?
    i hold status with Delta and have found FA and ticket agents of Delta the meanest. In fact, some took so much personal glee in sticking it to passengers that Delta had to change their training, although not their fee structure…

    However, no one meets the standards of EASTERN, which in coach class towards the end was definitively the meanest FA possible, given that it was clear the end of the glamours days and poor management and Lorenzo (remember him) had lead to the untimely end

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